Perhaps the question was indelicate. It was conceivably arbitrary — perchance even cruel.
After all, how could anyone choose just one artwork in a city like Boston, where museum galleries brim with masterworks, the public library boasts the murals of John Singer Sargent, and the Greenway displays the sculpture of Ai Weiwei?
Well, no one said it would be easy — particularly for the museum directors of Greater Boston, whom we asked to describe one work of art that has particularly resonated with them lately. The only catch? The chosen object had to be in a collection outside their home institution.
Each bemoaned the difficulty of choosing just one exceptional piece (“That is many, many works,” went the refrain). But the artworks they did choose were surprising, including stoneware from the second century BCE, a 14th-century bronze cast, and a 21st-century sculpture.
Call it a mutual admiration society, or maybe coveting thy neighbor’s artwork, but here we’ve gathered seven museum heads to describe, in their own words, the works around Boston that move them.
Peggy Fogelman, director, Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum
Object: “Untitled (Pins),” 2003
Artist: Tara Donovan
Location: Institute of Contemporary Art
I gravitate toward three-dimensions, and Tara Donovan is one of my favorite contemporary artists. I got to know her work when I was in Los Angeles, long before I was here.
What I like about this piece is that it reduces sculpture to its bare essence: It’s a three-dimensional form that takes up space, but it has no color or reference to recognizable subject matter.
It doesn’t really represent anything outside of itself, but it evokes wide-ranging meaning. For instance, it’s made of sewing pins, so it’s evocative of traditional women’s work, but the artist leaves it to our imagination to conjure up that association. She doesn’t tell us anything. Its meaning is largely dependent on the person viewing it and the associations they make.
It also provokes wonder and contradiction: You look at it, and you try to figure out how it’s made. How does it hold together? It seems solid but also fragile. From afar it seems kind of soft. But then you get close and you realize it’s kind of threatening because of all the straight pins. It’s also very beautiful and shimmering and kind of perfect, but it’s made of this humble material.
You must investigate this series of contradictions through close looking, so to my mind it fulfills both a conceptual and visual engagement that makes it succeed as a work of art.
I also love that it’s by a woman, and I think Isabella herself would have loved it. I don’t think she would have given it a minimalist setting, though. She would have installed it in a room with tapestries, and textiles and countless paintings, and she would have looked at it by candlelight and watched it shimmer in relation to all the other shimmering things.
Paul Ha, director, MIT List Visual Arts Center
Object: still-life paintings
Artist: Giorgio Morandi
Location:Museum of Fine Arts (pictured); Harvard Art Museums
When you see a Giorgio Morandi you know it’s a Morandi. It’s like seeing Picasso during the Blue Period: You just know.
For about 50 years, he painted basically the same painting over and over again — 1,300 still-life paintings with these vases, bottles, and bowls.
With each one he was doing exactly what he was doing with the first one: trying to capture the light and create a wonderful composition.
It says to me that artists are problem solvers. They want their work to be seen. They want to have you see their vision through what they create, and for 50 years Morandi would just rearrange these glasses so he could get the light and study it so you could see the light that he was seeing and the color he saw.
The piece I first fell in love with is the one in the Yale University ArtGallery. When I was working there I would go down during lunch and look at that painting to see what he was trying to figure out.
The more you look at that painting, the more you get out of it — the more subtlety you get, the more of an idea you get of what he’s trying to solve, and in each of those 1,300 works he’s solving the exact same problem.
You can go to almost any museum around the world and there’s probably a Morandi. So you can look at how each is the same but also different.
They get more beautiful as the years go by, and then there’s a point where they start to sort of go downhill. I don’t know if it was because his eyesight was going, but what’s sort of heroic is that he continues until his last days. He’s still painting the same bottles and vases in his studio.
Martha Tedeschi, director, Harvard Art Museums
Object: “Little Rose of Lyme Regis,” 1895
Artist:James Abbott McNeill Whistler
Location: Museum of Fine Arts
One thing I love about this portrait is that it’s a very sympathetic portrait of this little girl, but painted, typically for Whistler, without any sentimentality or extraneous details.
Typical Victorian portraits of children often had kittens or little dogs or toys strewn across the carpet — some kind of sentimental accouterment that suggested the Victorian view of childhood.
This, on the other hand, treats this little girl almost as an adult. She has a very level gaze. She’s self-possessed, very calm, and the only thing that suggests she might be a little nervous is that she’s clasping her hands.
So she’s really this little person — not a sort of embodiment of Victorian ideals of a happy childhood.
At the time he painted this, in 1895, Whistler had escaped to the seaside town of Lyme Regis because his relatively new wife, Beatrix, had been diagnosed with a fatal cancer. Whistler married late in life, but married for love when he did, and it shattered his world when Beatrix became ill. They escaped to the seaside to get away from society, and, I think, to sort of wrap their heads around this reality.
He ended up spending a lot of time befriending the residents of Lyme Regis. He got to know the blacksmiths. He clearly got to know the mayor, and he loved the children — especially the girls in their little pinafores.
Many of his grand standing portraits were commissions, but in this case he did a series of child portraits that had no commercial value for him, so I think they were really about the process of painting — the idea of how one captures character with the simplest possible means.
So I love that it’s a great painting of a self-possessed child with the dignity you normally might see in the portrait of an adult, but at the same time it really underscores Whistler’s own vulnerability, and the extent to which he relied on the people in this little town for comfort and company.
John Ravenal, director, deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum
Object: “Elongated Tripod Ewer With Short Spout and Long Strap Handle, the Handle Braced With Struts,” Chinese, Erlitou culture, 1900-1350 BCE
Location: Harvard Art Museums
I happened to be at a reception when I saw this piece and just loved it. I haven’t done any research on it, but it’s just this incredible mixture of functionality and aesthetics.
The three legs create a stable tripod form. On one level, the spread of the legs balances the height of the piece, but the legs are also slightly bulbous, so you get more storage capacity for liquid, and they come to these points, which I suppose would be quite good in soil.
You also have this long, multi-hand handle, which makes sense for a vessel this size. Those little struts keep the handle from breaking, but you can also imagine that if you slipped your hand into the different sections they’d hit those struts, so it has another kind of functionality.
On the one hand I admire its simple engineering, but it’s really the shape that’s so amazing to me. It’s very much of a human form, with legs and a long slender body. The head has a mouth — the spout — and then the handle reads like long hair flowing down the body.
There are also those three bands toward the bottom that wrap around it. I don’t think they have any functional role, so there’s this aesthetic addition that is partly to break a long surface and define it, but it’s also the waist. It’s like bands around the waist of a slender girl.
You can also see where the handle meets the top that the potter has used a tool to cut into it to make that feathered pattern, forming a lip. It creates this wonderful separation between the torso and the face — almost like a fringe of hair coming off the handle.
Of course it also puts one in mind of Picasso and Brancusi and Ernst and Miro. I’m really enamored. It just took me.
Jill Medvedow, director, Institute of Contemporary Art
Object: “Self-Portrait in Tuxedo,” 1927
Artist: Max Beckmann
Location: Harvard Art Museums
When the Harvard Art Museums reopened I was reminded how incredible this painting is. It’s so much about power, and politics, and painting. I never get tired of looking at this work. It’s unforgettable.
First, there’s the work itself, which is so frontal, so compressed. His face is so controlled and arrogant, it seems, and almost sinister.
There’s the incredible velvety black of his tuxedo, and the way he has not shared with us a lot of the things one might expect. You don’t see the studs in his shirt or his cuff links. You just look at the face and the hands, which anchor the body and the painting.
We can’t know exactly what that expression means, but a lot of the pieces written about it refer to the face as like a mask.
I love how the body fills the picture frame. The compression of the figure in that space, and the light and the shadow that divide the body, it makes me think of power and balance.
There’s also such an important story behind the painting. Beckmann was a very prominent artist in Weimer Germany, and the painting was purchased by the National Gallery in Berlin, which placed it in a special Beckmann gallery in 1933.
That was the same year Beckmann lost his teaching post. The Nazis confiscated 500 or so of his paintings. They dismantled the gallery, and when Beckmann finally left the country [in 1937], it was days after the [Nazis’ notorious] “degenerate show” [of modern art] opened and Hitler gave the speech condemning modernism and modern art.
So it speaks about the power of art to disrupt — in this case because of its ideas about modernism, which was so anathema to the ideology of the Nazis — but it also speaks about the power of the state.
Maybe it’s because of the fraught times we are living in — and the threat that feels so present in our world — but it really resonates.
Matthew Teitelbaum, director, Museum of Fine Arts
Object: “Ennead,” 1966
Artist: Eva Hesse
Location: Institute of Contemporary Art
There’s a melancholy to Eva Hesse’s work. She died quite young, and maybe I ascribe that melancholy to the work because I know it was a tragically short working life. Maybe it’s actually there, but I see in her work that sense of a lost future.
Matisse said that the greater a work of art, the more meanings it has, which was his way of releasing us all to our own interpretations — that many interpretations are a good thing.
“Ennead” is a work that’s very specific and poetic at the same time. I find myself really engaged by this work’s invitation on two levels — the way you start to imagine associations, but also the focus on its material quality.
It is literally an object, a rectangle, on the wall. Coming out of the rectangle are these ropes that drape themselves along the floor and then attach themselves to another wall that’s on a right angle.
It has three different points of gravity: what falls off the surface, what hits the floor, and what gets attached to the other wall. That makes me think of the weight of things, or the material quality of things as they experience different conditions.
It does what any great work of art does for me, which is to get me to think about things I wouldn’t normally think about. In this case, it’s the idea of the corner of a room — a physical attribute that’s often forgotten — and makes me confront it.
Might I also say there is another kind of duality in this work? On the one hand there is the certainty of the material: It’s rope, it’s knotted, and it’s hanging. On the other hand there’s an ephemeral quality to it as well: It’s almost as if it’s starting to disappear.
That interests me a great deal: the fact that a material or an object can have more than one state of being at the same time.
Nancy Netzer, director, McMullen Museum of Art, Boston College
Object:“Samson and Lion,” aquamanile, northern German, early 14th century
Location: Museum of Fine Arts
These are vessels for pouring water for washing hands. We don’t know exactly how they were used, but they were likely ceremonial, used at liturgy, and maybe at dining tables in monastic refectories.
This is one of the best ones that exists. It’s cast in one piece, so you can imagine what an incredible feat that was in the 14th century. It’s in the absolute top tier.
I feel like I know this object inside and out. I worked on two catalogs while I was at the MFA, and we put this on the cover of one of them. We worked with X-rays, and I felt so close to the artist because I was able to see inside the vessel to see what he did.
It actually doesn’t work that well as a pouring vessel. It hurts your hand to pour. It’s not very well weighted, and the spout is right behind the lion’s mane.
But look at the way the sleeves on Samson’s arms are rolled up. He has these very fashionable pointed shoes on, and I love the fact that he has this gorgeous vest that looks like it might be made of Middle Eastern textiles.
It’s really like a sculpture. You can see him looking right into the eye of the lion. Its mane is so beautifully rendered. It’s almost like the vessel is a pretext for making a fabulous piece of sculpture.
We don’t know anything about the artist. A lot of these were made in Lower Saxony, but this is clearly much better than the other examples there, and I’m pretty convinced it was made farther north. We even think we know the church where it was in 1470.
We are so lucky to have this. When it’s in the case you keep walking around it, and from every angle it delights you. It’s a masterpiece from every side.Comments were edited and condensed. Malcolm Gay can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @malcolmgay